Walter Winchell

I was meandering around the web this morning and stumbled on to a page where famous key collector and curator Tom Perera W1TP had re-created the morse key setup used by Walter Winchell to introduce and punctuate his radio and later TV broadcasts. They were a pair of Vibroplex bugs.

The Vibroplex ‘Lightning Deluxe’ and ‘Original’ bugs
The Vibroplex ‘Lightning Deluxe’ and ‘Original’ bugs

I grew up in Sydney in the 1950s and remember how radio station 2UE would start their news bulletins with a brisk CQ CQ. They were probably inspired by Winchell. Another memory is watching ‘The Untouchables‘ on TV with narration by Walter Winchell.

It’s worthwhile reading Walter Winchell’s Wikipedia entry while you listen to and occasionally watch an archived TV show of his from December 1953.

The Walter Winchell Show 13 Dec 1953
The Walter Winchell Show 13 Dec 1953

Ironically in his early years as a gossip journalist he was close to prominent criminal identities and later became friends with J. Edgar Hoover. He was Jewish and in the lead up to the second world war was one of the first Americans to criticise Hitler and those in the US who supported him. Another of his targets was isolationist Charles Lindbergh. His fame followed his reporting the famous kidnapping and subsequent trial.

From the clip you can hear the rapid-fire delivery. In many ways it’s like a precursor to much of what we consume today.

Walter Winchell reporting – from a brilliant site about old mics – coutant.org
Walter Winchell reporting – from a brilliant site about old mics – coutant.org

He attacked the Klan and its supporters. After the war he aligned himself with the Senator Joe McCarthy’s hunt for communists. But within this short clip there are a couple of places where he briefly questions a couple of issues that were to haunt the US for the next couple of decades – Vietnam and cigarettes and cancer.

Complex and probably unattractive, what I want to know is if he actually knew how to handle those Vibroplex keys.

Reading in your head – the long path to morse code bliss

I’m one of those people who learnt morse code completely the wrong way. Starting off in the seventies with no guide I simply tuned into nightly morse transmissions sent by local hams at a very slow rate. I think they started at 5 words a minute. The main risk there was nodding off between words or impatiently guessing the wrong word.

Contemporary wisdom is that you should start listening at a much faster rate, say 15 or 20 words per minute. This is to prevent you counting dots and dashes in your head, and to make it easier for you to recognise the letters, numbers and even words by their sound.

Learning 15 wpm after mastering say 8 wpm is almost like learning a new language. Students of morse talk of ‘a plateau’ at 10 which is a mighty barrier to progressing up to a more useful conversational speed.

My personal goal is to be able to copy and send at 25 wpm and be able to sustain it over a couple of hours, and to be able to read mostly ‘in my head’, only using pencil and paper for details like names and callsigns.

Now that morse code is no longer compulsory for any ham licenses, surprisingly it seems to be more popular than ever! Especially with those hams who like to use low power to make contacts, or to take the lightest possible transceiver to a remote mountain top as part of the global ‘Summits on the Air‘ activity. Morse gets more mileage than voice per watt, and often these tiny transmitters are only putting out a couple of watts power.
And there’s something delightful in having the skill to read the beeps.

But for me it’s a skill I have to keep working on. I think in my twenties I was quite at ease chattering away at about 12 wpm seemingly for hours on end. Four decades on with a large slab of radio silence in between, I’m quite rusty, even though I know the basics are still there like riding a bike.

I’m a bit wobbly at the paddles, having grown up with the old fashioned straight key (the type you’re likely to have seen in old westerns). But you can feel slow but definite progress from every bit of practice you put in.

CW Academy FB

Yesterday I had my final CW Academy session. As an indication of how good it was and how much we valued it, not one of the five of us ever missed a single session! There were sixteen hour-long sessions over two months. And it was all free!

Late last year I noticed a couple of messages from Jack W0UCE inviting hams keen to improve their CW skills to join in and pointing them to this page detailing the thinking behind CW Academy’s approach.

What was on offer was a series of online sessions in a small online group re-learning the code. The hour-long sessions are designed to get you to read in your head and to break or avoid habits (like writing everything down) that will prevent you from increasing speed later.

A compact straight key - the HK-705
A compact straight key – the HK-705

The target for our beginner group was around 20wpm. The sessions took place using Oovoo which is like Skype for groups. (Apparently it’s important that the instructor can see who is having difficulties.) We logged on twice a week. In between times we were expected to practice daily using a nifty online tool, Morse Translator. This neat web app lets you practice listening to code and adjust both character speed and Farnsworth spacing. Our default setting from day one was 20wpm character speed with gaps to yield an effective speed of 10wpm. Morse translator is a great model to help practice sending as well. I found including sending practice helped lock in recognition of words.

Our teacher or Elmer was Rob K6RB. He shared his intense enthusiasm for CW with us as well as his experience on air. After a few weeks of walking us through the alphabet, numbers and prosigns and practising new letters and words, Rob gradually upped the speed. Then the rubber hit the road about week five when we were QSOing back and forth. Rob patiently introduced us to the format of the typical QSO, contesting and even handling a DXpedition. His aim was to prepare us for these so that we’d know what to expect and what was expected of us when we joined in. We got the benefits of decades of operating experience in these sessions.

CW Ops banner - 'The CW Operators' Club - Celebrating The Unique Art Form of Morse Code'

The CW Academy is an initiative of the CW Operators Club. CWops is international in focus and it was great to be accommodated as the token DX in the group.  As they say on the webpage “available to anyone, anywhere”.

The training has got me confident to get back on the air with a practical code speed and as a bonus, interested for the first time in having a go at contesting, initially the CWops fortnightly Mini-CWT contest which we spent a couple of sessions rehearsing.

A big TU to CWops and Rob K6RB for all their efforts running the CW Academy.

Big Day Out at Wyong

Just back from a few hours spent at the annual field day at Wyong hosted by the Central Coast Amateur Radio Club. This has to be the big day out for Australian radio amateurs. People came from near and far. It’s a good barometer of the health of the hobby and the local industry supporting it.
I was delighted to see – as the first exhibit as you enter – a full display of the Elecraft K-line presented by Gary VK4FD. Only thing missing was a KX3. Gary of course is an enthusiast, not an employee of Elecraft. A pretty good indicator of the passionate support the company enjoys.

Gary VK4FD and his display of Elecraft gear at the Wyong field day
Gary VK4FD and his display of Elecraft gear at the Wyong field day

The flea market became pretty busy as the morning progressed, but maybe not as many stalls as previous years. One stall that stood out for me at least was Stephen VK2SPS’s which included his offering of keys and bugs, surplus to his collection as he focuses on homegrown Australian manufactured keys. Eagle-eyed visitors will spot the McElroy bug (top, centre) and an interesting wooden based French military key towards bottom right.

Spotted in the flea market at the Wyong field day
Spotted in the flea market at the Wyong field day

Brilliant sunny weather, but not too hot to spend some time wandering about looking for a bargain or three. Also saw an impressive display of homebrew gear from members of the ARNSW Homebrew group.

European keying

Attention drawn by a post to the SKCC email list to video on the GHD keys site illustrating the ‘European’ style of keying, demonstrated appropriately enough in this video by a Japanese operator. On this page it’s described as the ‘Reaction Method’.

Also saw an interesting exchange of comments on the SKCC list about this style.

Also found the GHD catalogue an eye-opener. Some very sophisticated keys and paddles there. Again these keys are also available from Morse Express.